We all want our summer to go out with a bang: A bunch of parties, extra days on the beach, houseguests in every spare nook of our houses, the pool put to good use before autumn weather snaps us back to reality. It hasn’t been that kind of summer’s end around here.
Last Monday, my nieces were over the house interning at The Beacon, which basically means they interview all the pets in the house and come up with creative recipes for pie, in between kicking a soccer ball around the yard.
It was a beautiful summer’s day. We drove my son to his first day at a new job. Someone used the bathroom. I don’t know who. The toilet gurgled. The tub gurgled. A torrent of sewage water began flowing full force out of the overflow vent on the side of the house, into the tomato bed, into the basil bed, into the backyard. We all pointed fingers at each other, but no one was taking the blame.
I sighed and went to the garage for the shovel. It was time to dig up the cesspool again.
If I was gainfully employed, I doubt I would have paid anyone to dig up my cesspool. I’d have taken the day off from work, dug it up myself, and kept the difference between my salary and the cesspool guy’s. But as the editor of a fledgling internet publication with no revenue stream, there was no question that the flow would all be on my shoulders. Yuck.
Now, we only know where the cesspool is in my backyard because this isn’t the first time this has happened. I bought my house on Dec. 12 of last year, and by Christmas morning, we were knee deep in the same problem that began last Monday. There’s nothing that cements a romantic relationship like spending Christmas morning poking holes in your backyard to find the cesspool, finding the main line from your house, chiseling loose the house trap, making a plumbing snake out of a 40-foot piece of Romex house wiring because The Home Depot is closed and trying to clear your main line before company arrives for Christmas dinner. But we abide. We all abide.
This time was different. I was on my own. I stared down the cesspool cover and heaved it loose with all my might. The wastewater engineer in the family had insisted the cesspool was full because of my washing machine. It wasn’t. The main line was clogged again. I found the Romex snake that we hid in the corner of the basement after our Christmas escapade and began poking it into the main line. My interns kicked a soccer ball around the yard. I convinced them I was playing a game called “poke the poop.” They texted me emoticons of poop from their iPhones, but all I got on my Android phone was a blank text bubble with a couple ellipses in the middle of it. The interns giggled at me, then stopped when they saw the look on my face. Aunt Beth wasn’t going to be any more fun.
The first hour of poking the poop yielded no results. The flow from the house was still a trickle. By the second hour, my arms were numb and concrete-scratched from knuckle to elbow and my head was spinning from cesspool fumes. I began to cry. The interns left. The sun went down. I kept poking the main line. Nothing got any better and it wasn’t going to that day.
I got into the shower, let the hot water run down over my face and bruised up arms and looked out the window at the stream of water pouring out of the overflow into my garden bed. Tomorrow would be another day.
Tuesday morning, the dog woke up with a limp. I took him to the road for the 5 a.m. walk. He hobbled ten paces, then sat down and looked up at me like he was about to die. I gulped and thought about calling one of my old bosses and asking for my job back so I could pay the bills. When things start going bad, there’s only one thing I can think of, and that’s cancer.
I went inside. I surfed the web. I decided the dog had torn his ACL and convinced myself it wasn’t cancer. You see, I’m not only a crackerjack wastewater engineer, but I’m also a veterinarian. The interns arrived and asked what they were going to do today. I rolled my eyes and went outside to poke the poop.
By 11 a.m. I thought my head had been in the cesspool my entire life. I shouted down into the murky water: “Been down so long it looks like up to me!!!” It didn’t even echo right, and it wasn’t worth saying. Then I cried and cried, told the interns to look after the dog and went to the Home Depot to buy a real snake.
When I came home, there was a nice letter in the mailbox from my flood insurance company telling me I wasn’t eligible for FEMA-subsidized flood insurance because I bought my house after June of 2012 and FEMA was out of money due to Superstorm Sandy. They promised me this December my flood insurance rates would reflect the full risk of insuring my new house. I can only assume that means I’ll be paying several thousand dollars a year instead of the $1,077 I’m paying now for bare minimum coverage of a 640-square-foot house.
Back behind my cesspool, about 50 feet, there’s a sea of phragmites coming out of the marshes at the edge of Reeves Bay. It’s the same thing for each of my neighbors. A few blocks up the street, everyone had water in their houses after the storm. My house was spared. But my bank wanted me to insure it against floods, so insure it I did. You don’t argue with an institution that is promising you The American Dream.
I sat down on the picnic table by the cesspool lid, looking out over the sea of phragmites. I thought about my aging cesspool, which must have been here since the house was built in the early 1950s. Every house on my block probably has a similar septic system, similarly situated, just yards away from the Peconic Bay. And that scenario is replaying itself on block after block on the East End, on the edge of the water we all love, a water body that is quickly becoming super-impaired by our very existence on its shores.
Peconic Green Growth reports that there are 340,000 on-site septic systems in Suffolk County. That’s a lot of poop. My cesspool wouldn’t be legal if it was built today, and chances are, yours wouldn’t be legal either, no matter where you live. And where my house sits, it would be illegal to upgrade to a better conventional septic system due to my proximity to wetlands. I could install a fancy, high-text sewage treatment system, but it would cost at least one sixth of what I paid for my house, and neither I nor anyone I know has that kind of money.
I sighed and stuck my head back in the cesspool and began poking the poop again with the real snake. The interns came outside to play soccer. The dog began walking around like a normal, four-legged dog. Sometime before the sun went down, there was a breakthrough in the main line and all four of us, the interns, the dog and I, sat by the open cesspool and smiled.
I still don’t know how I’m going to pay my flood insurance and I’ll be damned if I know what any of us are going to do when the sea begins to rise. I don’t know if my main line will be clogged again in six months and I don’t know if my dog will die from cancer. I don’t know how much of a hypocrite I am for letting my cesspool pollute the bay. But there’s nothing that matches the knowledge that your family is safe and warm and fed, and they can flush the toilet because of you.